“Buried Child”

Mark L. Montgomery (Tilden), Arti Ishak (Shelly) and Larry Yando (Dodge) in a scene from “Buried Child” now playing at The Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, Ill., through June 17. – Michael Brosilow


Where: Writers Theatre, Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through June 17
Tickets: $35-$80
Phone: 847-242-6000

Theater Critic

No matter how many times I see the late Sam Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Buried Child,” I still can’t really make heads or tails of it. The rural Illinois family the playwright depicts is so demented that it makes “dysfunctional” look like a stroll in the park. The drama, influenced by the likes of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, masquerades as naturalistic, at least at first, but soon becomes absurd, even surreal. It is so laden with symbols, about the decay of the American Dream and all that, that sorting them out is almost impossible. And the facts just don’t add up.

On the surface, “Buried Child” turns on the long-guarded secret concerning the parentage and tragic fate of the title baby. But there are more urgent questions about identity sparked by the arrival in the second act of Vince (Shane Kenyon) and his girlfriend Shelly (Arti Istak), who stop at his dilapidated family homestead, here designed by Jack Magaw, on a road trip from New York to New Mexico to visit his father.

Before that, in the long first act, we meet the people he’s coming to visit, and an A-list of Chicago actors under Kimberly Senior’s vivid if leisurely direction makes them memorable to say the least. Dodge (Larry Yando), haggard and with a hacking cough, sits virtually immobile on the couch with a tv at his feet, alternately lighting smokes and taking swigs from the whiskey bottle he’s hidden in a cushion. His wife Halie (Shannon Cochran) harangues him unseen from upstairs as she gets ready to go meet Father Dewis (Allen Gilmore) for lunch and—we later learn—hanky panky, despite her stated religiousness.

Halie admonishes Dodge not to let their oldest son Tilden (Mark L. Montgomery) go out, especially not into the backyard. A hulking man who was once a football player, he’s clearly brain-damaged and has returned from living in New Mexico where he got into serious trouble, though we never find out how. He does go into the yard, however, and returns, muddy, his arms full of ears of corn, though Halie and Dodge claim the land has been barren for years and that Tilden stole the corn.

Dodge also claims that Tilden is not his son, and neither is one-legged Bradley (Timothy Edward Kane), who limps in with an electric razor and sheers the fearful old man’s head while he’s sleeping, for no apparent reason. There also was a third brother, who Halie lauds as brave and angelic, unlike the other two.

Senior turns up the heat with the evening arrival of Vince and Shelly while Halie is out. Vince greets Dodge as his grandfather and Tilden as his father, but both of them insist they don’t recognize him and have no idea who he is. Dodge just wants him to get whiskey and alternately ogles and insults Shelly, calling her “girly,” asking where she’s from, and when she answers LA, caustically calling it the land of “stupid people.” Tilden brings in an armload of dirty carrots from the yard that Shelly ends up peeling, and he creepily asks to touch her rabbit-fur coat, putting it on and caressing it. She wants to leave, but Vince refuses, increasingly distraught that he isn’t recognized. However, he does go off to buy whiskey for Dodge, promising to return right away—but failing to do so.

Things become increasingly bizarre and manic the next morning. Halie comes home with Father Dewis in tow, and as she berates her husband and sons, the cleric admits to being out of his element. Complicated power dynamics emerge, as Bradley—brazen and menacing with Shelly the night before (making her put her fingers in his mouth)–cringes and cowers at a mere look from his mother. Then Vince, having gone off the deep end emotionally, returns, and in a drunken rage, tears up the place, symbolically puts Dodge to rest, and lays claim to his patrimony.

Now, however, Dodge and Tilden recognize him, and we’re left wondering if they were pretending before or genuinely forgot or if Vince has somehow rewritten family history. Also, if Tilden is his father, who was his mother, and what is his relationship to the buried child, who Tilden apparently fathered and so dearly loved? These questions are never answered.

Senior seems to be trying to empower the women, especially by having Shelly, the outsider, stand up forcefully for herself, but rather than coming across as a normative character, she seems as manic and crazy as the others. Halie, the harridan, powerful or not, betrays more than a little misogyny on Shepard’s part.

It’s often said that “Buried Child” is not for everyone. I find the characters so unpleasant that spending nearly three hours with them is difficult. The play is deeply disturbing, but then it is supposed to be—and that’s not a bad thing.